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August 18, 2017 Fiction

Love Story in the Form of a Taco

Daniel Paul

Love Story in the Form of a Taco photo

The first taco shop to show up on our street was called, “WE SELL TACOS.” And they were true to their word. The menu had only two options—SINGLE TACO and PLATTER WITH SEVERAL TACOS—but in those first taco-rich days, we felt drunk with choice. For though surely there must be other kinds of food—“Isn’t there something called ‘Pizza’?” I whispered to my girlfriend one night, awake from a dream; she kissed my forehead, her breath heavy with the sweet smell of cilantro, and sent me back to sleep—we did not strain to remember them. The world did not extend beyond her, me, the tacos we shared, and the glow of the WE SELL TACOS neon sign that illuminated our charmed life. We did not peer back into the dark, tacoless void, nor give thought to the poor souls that populated it. Such was our bliss: Fire roasted and all consuming.

Summoned (we were certain) by the clarion call of our hunger, soon other taco places sprung up on our street, each offering a new and sometimes radical vision of what a taco could be. For example: FLOCK O’ TACO (which offered only chicken and duck meat tacos arranged on the plate in the formations of migrating birds), or STOCKO TACO (which fluctuated their prices based on the conditions of the live market). Others such as NO TALK JUST TACOS (which provided a silent ambiance, perfect for meditative contemplation of the sounds of a shell crunching) or JOHAN SEBASTIAN BACH-O TACO (which provided a harpsichordist to play Goldberg variations in the background) experimented not with the content of the taco, so much as the full experience of its consumption. Yes there were some less successful enterprises (E.G. COMMANDER SPOCKO TACO, with its unconvincing neo-futurist décor, mostly from Ikea, or GET YOUR MOTHER FUCKING TACOS RIGHT THE FUCK HERE, with its paper napkins printed with profanity and restrooms adorned with pornography) but, still, their ambition was to be applauded if not their execution. 

There was even that one place, which had no name, only the outline of a taco painted on a dark wooden sign, and didn’t actually serve tacos. Instead, they had their customers lie down on soft cots and listen to Eastern music while the waiters led them through guided meditation prompts beginning with “Imagine a taco.” And we did. I imagined a taco whose corn shell was as blue as the pacific. She imagined a taco from whose lush green lettuce a new world could sprout. 

In sum, our street became an eclectic shrine to the emerging radical potential of the taco as an object, and of the taco shop as a space, to unite our community while still celebrating the terrifying yet electric beauty of the raw difference of individuals. And though my girlfriend and I had our favorites spots and those that we would not return to—Cough EVERY DAY IS TACO TUESDAY Cough—we tried every joint at least once, and felt in our ecstasies and embarrassments that we were discovering what it was to be human, one taco at a time.

But we should have been wary, even then. For even at the height of our bliss, lying in that nameless taco temple (not to be confused with TACO TEMPLE, the place across the street that had religious themed tacos), as we dreamed of beginnings, we could not keep out visions of the end. My girlfriend imagined a taco whose crunch could move mountains. I saw a taco of such molten spice level that it returned the earth to ash.

So blinded were we by our own pleasures, so confident that we were traveling on the path to self-discovery, the fiery tacos ever our Polaris, that we didn’t notice what carnage that luminance had obscured. We woke one day to realize that every storefront on our street was now a taco place. We hadn’t noticed, for example, that the drug store had closed up months ago, replaced by TIC TAC TACO (which might have been worth the loss of convenient pharmaceutical access were it not for the fact that TIC TACO TOE was already installed a few doors down, and, it should be said, met all of our Tic-Tac-Toe themed taco needs admirably). Did we really need MONSIEUR TACO when we already had MADAME TACO? This is not to disparage tacos inspired by classical French flavors or even to suggest that we would benefit from a lack of competition in that area, but do we need to put the two restaurants into a domestic conflict? “I’m not saying that they should combine and become one unified taco place; I’m not saying everyone needs to get married,” my girlfriend said to me, her eyes refusing to meet mine, “but I do think one of them should at least change their name.” 

Ah, but alas, soon this would be the least of their problems. And ours. If the two warring halves of Maison Taco were the first to go, they would not be the last. It seemed that the decadence of our street’s taco boom was to be met with the bleakness of the subsequent purge. Initially, the closings seemed to target redundancies (I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED TACOS shuttering its doors not long before I BELIEVE IN A TACO CALLED LOVE was forced to take down their shingle), and we, fools that we were, fat from all-you-can-eat Taco Tuesdays, and secure in our belief that the purging fires would trim the forest overgrowth, but would never reach the garden, thought that it might even be for the best. “Maybe it’s time for the neighborhood to settle down,” I said to her, as she laid, her head across my lap. And she nodded. A single nod, mature, forceful as a gavel pounding on wood, delivering a measured verdict. 

Next thing we knew, gone was BOSTON TACO (Lobster tacos et cetera, employing only New England transplants with “Can I get you a Taw-Co?” accents). Gone was TWO TACOS, ALIKE IN DIGNITY (all of whose tacos were named for Shakespearian plays, often combining ingredients that seemed in irreconcilable conflict, and leaving the eater in suspense as to whether their meal would prove to be comic or tragic). Even TACO TO THE HAND (a no nonsense place with pleasantly sassy servers and an elaborately choreographed dance routine performed anytime a new customer was foolish enough to ask for utensils) was put to the sword. Soon, we were afraid to leave our house for fear of finding out which Taco place had fallen in our absence (“Oh no! They got ROCK SCIZZOR TACO!” “Wasn’t that place called TACO SCIZZOR PAPER?” “No. Though I always thought that would make more sense. I suppose it doesn’t matter now.”) even if we knew that the longer we avoided finding out the truth, the harsher the judgment would be when we faced it: the more taco places—their signage as bright as their sauces—that would have faded into the gray concrete and granite from which they miraculously sprung, willed (seemingly) only by our yearning for them. Though if we were to be praised for their miraculous arrivals, are we then too to be blamed for their inevitable departure? Or does a taco place—does a life? Does a love?—have coded into its blueprints the mechanism of its own expiration?

This is the question I had planned to ask my girlfriend at our last night at WE SELL TACOS. I was going to say, “Baby, what are we going to do when there are no more tacos?” (And may I just say, that as I ate that last taco—simple and clean in its flavors, coherently constructed so that I might hold it one handed with confidence as I held my girlfriend’s hand with the other—it was as perfect as I remembered the first time, and I thought this would be enough.) But I lost my nerve when I heard the sound of her crunching on the shells. Was that crunch the sound of building or destroying? Was it the alpha or the omega? Was it the tick or the tock of our life together?

(Actually TICK TOCK-O is not a terrible name for a taco shop.)

Now, there are no more taco places on our street. Tonight, we are out at pizza (which we have rediscovered, in all of its complexity, its beauty and its warts). She had asked me if I wanted pizza and, like a sad dog, I had said I wasn’t sure (the subtext being I missed tacos). Then she asked if I wanted to cook something instead, which settled the matter with blinding clarity.

Looking at the menu I see that they have a taco pizza. I look from the menu to my girlfriend’s eyes, and we (I am convinced) share a moment of transcendent dual consciousness that begins with the consensus that in each other’s planet shaped eyes we can find the blueprints for a new world to share, and that ends with telling the waiter that we would like a large taco pizza and some extra napkins. 

When he comes back with the pizza, I recognize him as a former server from COMMODORE TACO, and I wonder if he remembers us, or if we are now, in our taco-less iteration, so devoid of luminance that we do not resemble the youthful couple, so in love, that would come in and order the full CARNE ASADA ARMADA platter. I try to make eye contact, to convey that we (the we who he would surely greet as old friends) we are still here. He looks at me like I am creeping him out, and he backs away slowly, bumping into a couple behind him, spilling a beverage and forcing him to apologize. “I’m so sorry,” he says. Aren’t we all? I think. Aren’t we all!?

Returning to the pizza: the slices are hard to separate, and in pulling mine apart from my girlfriend’s, several shards of tortilla fall into the crevice between them, a few ricocheting onto the floor. I take a bite.

“Does this pass for the original?” she asks me. 

Where to begin.

“Well,” I say, “This is the question. Can the past ever be recreated, even in the most earnest attempts of the most skilled artisans (be their medium clay or pizza)? Is the distant trace of land above the water a cloud on the horizon moving us forward, or a ghost, haunting our bearings and consigning us to shipwreck? Is memory a guide or a trap?”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” she asks.

“I’m answering your question. You asked if this passes for the original? I’m answering, albeit with a slightly metaphorical—”

“I didn’t ask if this passes for the original; I asked you to pass the oregano.”

“Oh.” There is heavy silence softened only by the flakes of oregano dusting the top of her pizza like new snow falling on pavement.

“You put oregano on taco pizza?” I ask.

“I put oregano on fucking everything,” she says. 

Perplexed by her palate, I must admit, I am envious of her adamant certainty.

I open my mouth, ready to challenge her choice of condiment (or perhaps to applaud it? Come to think of it, I rarely know what I’m going to say before I begin a sentence), or maybe to provide an elegy for a taco restaurant, or, possibly to pick up my train of thought which, I think was pushing towards a poignant articulation of the urgent necessity of vigilance in the face of diminishing passion. But she stops me. 

“Shut up,” she says, pushing her pizza towards my mouth. “Just shut the fuck up and try this.”

image: Aaron Burch